(Host) Commentator Philip Baruth has recently begun working with the Vermont Council on the Humanities on their Contemporary Issues of Vermont series. The experience has taught him a great deal about himself more about himself, in fact, than he is comfortable knowing.
(Baruth) So a few weeks ago, I get a call from the town library in Fairfax, up near the Canadian border, and they want me to drive up and talk about a novel I wrote about Burlington.
Now, this first discussion is scheduled for 6:30, and I don’t have a chance to eat before I leave Burlington at about 5 o’clock. But it’s only a half-hour drive to Fairfax, and that leaves plenty of time to snag something quick to eat before I hit the library. The sun is going down as I leave 89, and it’s a beautiful drive through the fields into Fairfax, but by this time I’m ravenous. I’m looking for any sign of food, and then I see this funky bakery the kind with sandwiches and great soups.
I swing in. But it turns out they only take cash, and I only have a debit card. But the baker woman tells me there’s a convenience store down the road that has a cash machine.
Perfect. I swing back into the car, find the convenience store, and I’m standing in front of the tiny stand-alone cash machine when I realize that there’s an electronic message that’s scrolling endlessly across the bottom of the screen. The message says, “Don’t forget Thursday night is Prime Rib night at _______.” And for a second I’m mesmerized can this be true? Can this convenience stand really be selling fresh prime rib? Or do they mean some brutal new kind of microwave burrito kind of prime rib? But in any event, I’m so hungry that the phrase prime rib has completely taken control of my consciousness. So I ask at the register, and the woman says yes, if I go to the deli counter, the man there will slice me a Captain’s cut of prime rib cooked any way I like it, with fresh squash and homefried potatoes.
And so I do, and this piece of rib is unbelievable about an inch and a quarter thick, and it completely fills its oversized plastic container. I grab a plastic knife and fork and a napkin from the bin by the door but there’s a glitch no salt packets. I don’t know about you but I can’t eat prime rib without salt. But then I see that they sell the big blue Morton’s cardboard containers of salt, and even though it’s a dollar eight nine and I only want a few sprinkles, I buy it anyway.
I find the library, which is in the big Bellows Free Academy complex, and I pull up beside a streetlampin the parking lot and I just rip into this meal. And it’s delicious. But the plastic fork isn’t designed to deal with something like this rib, and after a minute it breaks. It doesn’t just snap in half, it shatters and all the plastic tines go showering over the dark front seat. I just cleaned the car, so there’s no chance that there’s a spare fork in the glove box. So I have really no choice but to pick up the prime rib in my hands and kind of rip at it with my teeth.
And that’s working pretty well I’m occasionally sprinkling salt from the big Morton’s container and really enjoying the meal when I realize that one of the cars near mine that I thought was empty isn’t empty. I look over the top of the rib to see these two older women in a mini-van parked catty-corner to me, and there’s just enough light from the streetlamp to see that they’ve seen me and they look I guess uneasy is the word. But I’m in the home stretch on the rib and time is running out so I try to stay focused.
Only later, during the book discussion, do I realize that the two women from the mini-van are in the room, watching me carefully as I talk about the novel. Among other things, there’s a sudden unexpected murder in the book, and I’m using this as I always do to point out that some things in fiction come purely from the imagination itself, with no relation to real-life experience at all.
Halfway through this answer, though, I see these two women whispering to one another, and I realize they’re not buying it for a second. And to tell you the truth, sitting there with my stomach entirely full of salt and red meat, I’m not so sure I buy it either.
Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington, who teaches at the University of Vermont. His latest novel is “The X President.”